Confederate 'Lost Cause' defenders run to keep seats in Southern legislatures

Three outspoken defenders of the Confederate "Lost Cause" are running to hold on to their seats in legislatures in South states. From left, they are Rep. Tommy Benton of Georgia, Rep. Larry Pittman of North Carolina, and Sen. Joey Hensley of Tennessee. (Official photos.)

QAnon — the far-right conspiracy theory that falsely claims President Trump is battling "deep state" Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against him — made headlines recently when adherent Marjorie Taylor Greene won an August runoff to become the GOP nominee in Georgia's heavily Republican 14th Congressional District.

"There's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out," Greene, a construction executive, said in a video, "and I think we have the president to do it."

The Democrat who was supposed to face Greene in November, Kevin Van Ausdal, recently withdrew after being served with divorce papers from his wife that required he leave their marital home. Van Ausdal decided to abandon the race and move in with family in Indiana, sealing Greene's win unless something extraordinary happens.

Greene's ideas, which at times have veered into racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic territory, have been widely condemned. A group of Republican congressmen from mostly Southern states endorsed and campaigned for her primary runoff opponent, neurosurgeon John Cowan, whose slogan was "All of the conservative, none of the embarrassment."

Greene eventually tried to distance herself from QAnon, telling Fox News that the videos she made promoting the conspiracy theory were in her past. While her campaign is primarily self-funded, she has also received contributions from interests including Gun Owners of America, Koch Industries, and the House Freedom Fund — the PAC of the Freedom Caucus, the furthest-right bloc within the House Republican Conference.

Of course, Greene's candidacy does not mark the first time ideologies based on outright lies, bizarre claims, and gross distortions of fact have entered Southern politics. In fact, for generations, Southern politics were fundamentally shaped by a negationist version of history that came to be known as "the Lost Cause of the Confederacy," or simply, "the Lost Cause."

Created after the Civil War by groups including the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), who continue to promote it today, the Lost Cause ideology was based not on historical fact but on fiction and twisted propaganda intended to justify slavery, secession, and the Confederacy itself. The Lost Cause ideology holds that slavery didn't cause the war, that slaves were happy and well treated by benevolent masters, that President Lincoln was a tyrant akin to Adolf Hitler, and that the Ku Klux Klan was a heroic protector of victimized white Southerners. Spread through textbooks in Southern schools for generations, it was the driving force behind the push to erect monuments to the Confederacy across the South in the period after Reconstruction, when Black Americans had their voting rights and other freedoms taken away under Jim Crow laws and segregation began.

Still today, in the midst of a national uprising over racial injustice, and with the toppling of numerous Confederate monuments that embody it — 96 in the South alone since the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, according to the Southern Vision Alliance — Lost Cause ideology lingers in the region's politics and its statehouses. In fact, there are three state legislators, all Republicans, now up for reelection across the region who have continued to promote Lost Cause lies through legislation and other official efforts. They are Rep. Tommy Benton of Georgia, Rep. Larry Pittman of North Carolina, and Sen. Joey Hensley of Tennessee.

Straightening up with the Klan

In Georgia, state Rep. Thomas "Tommy" Benton of Jefferson, a former history teacher in Jackson County Public Schools, is facing off against Democratic challenger Pete Fuller, a systems administrator with a master's degree in instructional technology from the University of Georgia. Benton, an SCV member, was first elected in 2005 to represent District 31 in Jackson County, where the population is 88% white and 7.4% Black.

Benton's Lost Cause version of history has been raising eyebrows in Georgia since at least 2016, when in an interview with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution he denied slavery was the cause of the Civil War. Instead, he claimed, it was a war of independence from a "tyrannical government." He went on to praise the Ku Klux Klan, calling it "not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order. … It made a lot of people straighten up."

In 2017, the state GOP stripped Benton of leadership positions and a committee chair after he mailed to House members an article that denied slavery was the cause of the Civil War. The article was from that year's March/April edition of Confederate Veteran, the SCV's membership magazine.

Benton was again stripped of a committee chair this year over remarks he made on a radio show following the death of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the long-serving Georgia Democrat and prominent civil rights leader. Referring to Bloody Sunday, the 1965 incident in which Alabama state troopers attacked peaceful voting rights marchers on a Selma bridge and fractured Lewis's skull, Benton said Lewis's "only claim to fame was that he got conked on the head at the [Edmund] Pettus Bridge … and he has milked that for 50 years." Benton was arguing against replacing one of Georgia's two official statutes at the U.S. Capitol — a marble likeness of Alexander Stephens, former Georgia governor and vice president of the Confederacy — with one of Lewis.

Benton has sponsored legislation to force Georgia to recognize Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee's birthday. When he had to withdraw his legislation due to public backlash, he tried introducing a resolution to have the state House recognize April as Confederate History month and to observe Confederate Memorial Day.

Earlier this year, Benton voted against a bipartisan bill introduced after the white vigilante killing of an unarmed 25-year-old Black jogger named Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Georgia, to create a hate crimes statute in Georgia; the measure passed without his support and was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp (R). Benton has also called for the caning of people who smoke marijuana, and the execution of those who sell it.

Benton currently sits on six committees, including the Education Committee. The top contributors to his campaign over the years have been the Georgia Association of Realtors, the Georgia Education Association, and the state's nursing home lobby.

Bringing back secession

Larry Pittman of Concord, North Carolina, has represented what's now District 83 in the state House since being appointed in 2011 and then elected to the seat the following year. The Evangelical Presbyterian minister and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate has said this year's race will be his last. He's running against Democrat Gail Young, a leadership development consultant. The district spans Cabarrus and Rowan counties, where Black residents make up 19.6% and 16.9% of the population, respectively.

Pittman is reportedly not a member of the SCV, but that has not stopped him from promoting the group's Confederate worldview. In 2017, for instance, he cosponsored a bill to amend North Carolina's constitution by eliminating a provision that prohibits secession from the United States. The provision had been inserted into North Carolina's constitution as condition of its re-admission into the Union after the Civil War. Controversial in its day, secession as a "state's right" was deemed wholly unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1867. In other words, Pittman was 150 years late to the party.

When the secession bill went nowhere, Pittman became the primary sponsor of legislation based on nullification, a pre-Civil War Southern argument that states needn't abide by federal legislation or court rulings they don't like — again, a concept that has been ruled unconstitutional on numerous occasions by the U.S. Supreme Court as early as 1803.

What he sought to nullify was the U.S. Supreme Court's historic ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage. He wanted North Carolina to simply ignore it. House Speaker Tim Moore, a conservative Republican, promptly shelved the bill, citing obvious constitutional concerns.

In the midst of the resulting media drama, Pittman laid all his Lost Cause cards on the table in a Facebook argument. Responding to a poster who told him the Civil War was past and he needed to get over it, Pittman responded:

And if Hitler had won, should the world just get over it? Lincoln was the same sort if (sic) tyrant, and personally responsible for the deaths of over 800,000 Americans in a war that was unnecessary and unconstitutional.

Pittman has also taken to Facebook to celebrate Confederate General Robert E. Lee, repeatedly attack Abraham Lincoln, and deny that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. He has also endorsed the works of Michael Grissom, an author labeled a white supremacist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Grissom's books praise the Ku Klux Klan and other violent white supremacist groups, where he lauds the Klan's "valiant efforts" to maintain white control of the post-war South. He derisively refers to Black people as "negroes," claims slaves were happy and well treated, and rails against Blacks being allowed to vote.

And Pittman doesn't limit his embrace of extreme conspiracy and fringe theories to the Civil War. A YouTube video, which has since been taken down, showed him promoting the work of creationist Kent Hovind, who argues that Earth is only about 6,000 years old. Hovind, popular in the anti-government, anti-tax movement, received a 10-year federal prison sentence for tax evasion and tax fraud in 2006. Among the outlandish conspiracies he trades in, Hovind has claimed that Satan, the United Nations, the British royal family, members of the U.S. government, the state of Israel, Ted Turner, and Jane Fonda have conspired to keep creationism out of U.S. schools, and that the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing.

Pittman has also promoted the so-called "birther" conspiracy theory that falsely claims, despite official evidence to the contrary, that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

This past summer, Pittman took to Facebook to attack the Black Lives Matter movement, calling people protesting policy brutality and other racial injustice "ignorant thugs," "criminals," "domestic terrorists" and "vermin." If they resist and attack police, Pittman said, officers should "shoot them."

Pittman currently chairs the House Committee on Homelessness, Foster Care, and Dependency, and is a member of six other standing committees, including those for education in universities and community colleges.

Besides the North Carolina Republican Party, the top institutional contributors to Pittman's campaign include Carolinas Healthcare System, the North Carolina Optometric Society, and the North Carolina Hospital Association. Pittman was also among the North Carolina lawmakers who accepted contributions from an SCV-connected PAC that's been accused of breaking campaign finance laws.

Defending a Klan statue

Tennessee has its own Lost Cause warrior in state Sen. Joey Hensley, a Hohenwald physician and SCV member who has represented District 28 since 2013; he previously served in the state House. This year he faces no Democratic opposition but is running against James Gray, an independent with a history degree from the University of North Alabama. The rural district in Middle Tennessee along the Alabama border includes all of Giles, Lawrence, Lewis, Maury, Perry, and Wayne counties, where the Black population ranges from a high of 10.3% in Giles to a low of 1.8% in Lawrence.

Hensley touts himself as a "family values" conservative, though he has been married and divorced four times and accused of extramarital affairs — including one with his second cousin, who was also his employee. In 2019, the Tennessee Department of Health filed an administrative action against Hensley for allegedly illegally prescribing opioids to family members, including the cousin paramour. That matter remains unresolved.

He has introduced bills to change Tennessee law so that children conceived through in vitro fertilization are deemed illegitimate even if the parents are married, supported bills to ban schools from discussing LGBTQ issues, and engaged in a multi-year campaign to get fluoride out of drinking water. Earlier this year, he objected to including hygiene products such as tampons in a state sales-tax holiday because people would purchase too many.

In October 2016, Hensley was one of the speakers at the groundbreaking of the National Confederate Museum in Columbia, Tennessee, which was being built by the SCV. The 17,000 square-foot facility would serve as the group's new headquarters and would, according to Hensley, be the chance to:

… remember the heritage of our ancestors that fought so bravely and valiantly for their homelands, for what they believed in. History has been skewed and many times in society today many people try to make those soldiers out to be something they are not. Most of the Confederate soldiers never owned slaves and didn't fight the battle because of slavery. They fought the battle defending their homelands against an invading army.

Hensley has taken up the SCV's causes at the state capitol. In 2018, for example, he co-sponsored legislation that would have made it a felony for members of local governments to vote to move Confederate monuments in their own cities or counties. And he twice attempted to halt the removal of a bust of Confederate General and Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee Capitol.

Just this past July, he spoke in opposition to the Forrest bust being moved by the State Capitol Commission. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the unmasked Dr. Hensley testified that several of his direct ancestors had fought in the war even though they did not own slaves, that they fought to defend against an invasion by Lincoln, and most of accepted history is nothing but fake news. That trope often used by Hensley — that Confederates may have fought for slavery but didn't own slaves themselves — is also commonly used by the SCV and UDC. His testimony acknowledged Forrest had been in the Ku Klux Klan, but he continued:

I think Tennessee is doing pretty well. We have a lot of Black legislators and it's obvious Tennessee is doing the right thing, but I implore you on the commission to keep the bust there. … The times were different 150 years ago, 200 years ago and we can't hold these historical figures to what we believe today.

The commission voted 9 to 2 to remove the bust.

Several weeks later, a local chapter of the Tennessee state SCV, of which Hensley is a member, sued the State Capitol Commission in an attempt to keep Forrest bust in place. The suit is still pending.

Hensley serves as second vice chair of the powerful Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, and he is also a member of the committees on Education, Health and Welfare, and Joint Pensions and Insurance. Hensley is the top funder of his own campaign, but other major institutional donors include the Tennessee Medical Association, the Tennessee Society of Anesthesiologists, and the Tennessee Dental Association.